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Romney's retreat

GOVERNOR ROMNEY'S moves to the right, as he explores a campaign for national office, have been well noted. But now, if he carries out his intention to file legislation exempting Catholic Charities from state discrimination laws, he will be taking a giant step backward -- 46 years backward.

It was in 1960 that John F. Kennedy confronted anti-Catholic bias in a famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance. ''I believe in an America . . . where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source," he said. ''I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me."

This ringing embrace of church-state separation, confirmed by Kennedy's election, settled the issue once and for all, one hoped. Now Romney is out to turn it on its head.

Legislative leaders say they will block Romney's retreat. They deserve support.

The underlying problem is clear. The Vatican believes homosexual acts are ''intrinsically disordered." Massachusetts Catholic bishops, as a result, have prohibited Catholic Charities from allowing same-sex couples to adopt children the charity wants to place. But state law prohibits discrimination, including that against homosexuals. Since the automatic rejection of same-sex couples would obviously be discriminatory, Catholic Charities has decided to abandon its founding mission of facilitating adoptions, one that it has carried out to the great benefit of the public for over a century.

Romney said yesterday he would seek to exempt Catholic Charities from the law because its members ''should be able to follow the practices of their religion." But why, on a matter of public policy, should a religion's practices trump the state's? What if a well-meaning group wanted to discriminate against blacks, or against a religious group such as the Catholic Church? Would Romney file a bill to protect that bias?

Romney is governor, not a Catholic bishop. And he is considering a run for president, not pope. He should be defending the law, not proposing loopholes of discrimination.

A first step would be for Romney to ask Catholic bishops to reconsider whether the Church's own strong position on caring for vulnerable children deserves as much weight as its opposition to homosexuality.

Second, Romney and others could explore whether there is some way to create an arm's-length organization that would handle adoptions with same-sex couples in close association with Catholic Charities, but with enough distance from it to avoid a Church veto.

Failing those, perhaps a new group could be formed outside the Church to take over Catholic Charities adoption work. Perhaps many of the dedicated people performing that work so skillfully for Catholic Charities now would move to the new organization. Perhaps the public would fund it enthusiastically. Perhaps it could even be called catholic charities, with a small ''c," restoring the root meaning of the word as ''general, universal, or inclusive in human affairs."

Even respecting the Catholic Church's right to its beliefs on Church matters, its position on same-sex parenting is discrimination when applied to public matters.

Nearly a half-century ago, John Kennedy challenged bias against the Catholic Church. Now, Romney is defending bias from the Catholic Church. Romney works for all the people of Massachusetts. It is a shame to see him doing exactly what Kennedy forswore nearly a half-century ago: accepting instructions on public policy from the pope.

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